Earlier this year, between the summer and fall, I spent several months in Turkey following up on the case of the “Douma Four” activists—Samira al-Khalil (my wife), Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamade, and Nazem Hammadi—who were abducted and disappeared in Douma, east of Damascus, in December 2013. My aim was to interview as many as possible of the people forcibly displaced from Douma and Eastern Ghouta in the spring of this year. I had also intended to enter the territory controlled by Turkish forces in northern Syria, to meet the displaced there, including personal friends, but this turned out to be impossible for reasons I may share at another time.

Nonetheless, I met with around twenty displaced persons, and collected information from individuals whom I wasn’t able to meet face-to-face. The below is a summary of what has been confirmed regarding the ongoing crime.

There was not one person among those I interviewed or heard from—including people formerly in influential positions within the Jaysh al-Islam (“Army of Islam”) rebel faction—who did not attest that Jaysh al-Islam was the guilty party, with no possible alternative. It appears, indeed, that the group does not hide this from circles close to it. I had never remotely doubted this for one day, but if there is anyone still claiming to be uncertain about it, they can investigate the matter for themselves, for this is no longer difficult today.

I was not able to obtain conclusive information about the fate of the two women and two men. I was obliged to listen to the worst hypotheses and possibilities, including talk of the execution of the four, with some saying this happened shortly after the abduction. There were, however, others who said some or all of the four had been in Jaysh al-Islam’s prisons until February of this year. Some thought it likely they had been handed over to the Assad regime, though there is no evidence of that in our possession. I hope I am not in a state of denial when I say that the worst-case scenario is not certain beyond all doubt.

There are those who still fear Jaysh al-Islam among the recently displaced, who spoke of the cruelty of their criminality and their power to harm. And there are those still afraid of speaking about the Douma Four case, and other cases, or those who could speak if guaranteed protection.

I was able to form a clearer picture of Jaysh al-Islam’s structure, which is made up of security, shari’a, administrative, and financial components. The core nucleus of it is part-religious, part-intelligence agency, in which religion plays the role of a common language and a means of justifying acts ranging from incitement to threats to corruption all the way to torture, rape, and assassination. There are million-dollar commercial projects in Istanbul and other Turkish cities involving Jaysh al-Islam leaders, who are able to move freely between northern Syria and various Turkish cities. Land worth millions has been purchased in parts of northern Syria by this security/religious organization. Today, they offer themselves up to Turkey for hire, and it seems the Turkish authorities deem them a card that may be useful to play one day. It is this that prevents the revelation of the truth regarding this crime, and many others beside it.

The direct perpetrators are known by name, and the leadership structure, in its security, political, and religious aspects, is known in almost full detail. Any serious investigation would be able to uncover the truth about the Douma Four, and many other crimes, without especial difficulties.

The makeup of the organization is profoundly criminal and corrupt. To outward appearances, it looks like a hard-line religious group intervening in the details of people’s daily lives and imposing an austere regime on the community it rules and dominates, especially in Douma. In its highest internal circles, however, it amounts to a degenerate religious gang, debased in its morality, savage in its cruelty, corrupt of conscience, worshipping money and obsessed with sex, its leadership living in luxury and utmost privilege while the people of Douma and Ghouta were starving.

On top of that, the group’s members also connive against one another, most of them distrusting most others, each one holding things against their fellows, including videos, in order to protect themselves.

And it appears that a high proportion of Douma locals chose to remain in the city at the time of the displacement, just to be rid of Jaysh al-Islam, even if it meant living under the regime’s boot.

Finally, I think it important to say that the case of Samira, Razan, Wael, and Nazem will not be closed, not today or any other day, before its mysteries are solved, and the full truth about it is known, and the criminals responsible receive a fair punishment. As much as Syria has become a paradise for unpunished crimes, with criminals excused by the precedents of criminals other than themselves, working to uncover the crimes of Jaysh al-Islam protects the chances of justice for other perpetrators in Syria too. The detailed knowledge we might obtain about a gang, zealous and degenerate at one and the same time, could be of utmost benefit for looking at a world of comparable cases in which Assadism persists in long-bearded form.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 3 October, 2018]